Poverty Areas of New York City: Distribution of Public Assistance Recipients by Census Tracts (September 1977)…
Persuasive Cartography: a thematic city plan that purports to document the extent and distribution of poverty in New York City in the late 1970s.
This scarce city plan of New York City in the late 1970s is a powerful example of how governments have used cartography to map social dynamics. In this map, published as a revised version of the original in 1980, gridded color coding has been applied to visualize the geographic extent and density of welfare recipients in pre-specified tracts throughout the city.
Four categories have been applied in compiling this map: tracts with more than 1500 welfare recipients are colored a dark yellow; tracts with 1000 to 1499 recipients in orange; tracts with between 500 and 999 recipients in bright yellow; and finally, the tracts with less than 500 recipients remain uncolored. The result of this subdivision and coding is a number of pixelated groups that supposedly reveal which neighborhoods in the city suffer the most from poverty. Even a quick glance at the groups reveals that the worst areas are around Harlem and in the Bronx, although certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn, on Staten Island, and in Bayswater and Far Rockaway seem to be trailing closely behind.
The map of course reflects the situation at the end of the 1970s and much has changed in Greater New York since then (although the omnipresence of income inequality is not among these changes). A note under the title informs us that it was prepared by The Nova Institute in connection with the restructuring of the New York City Community Action Program, and that it was compiled on the basis of data from the NYC City Planning Office. In other words, while the compilers of the map may have been a private institution, both the brief and the data they were using to fulfill it came from public sources; this is also seen in the fact that Roger Alvarez, Commissioner of the Community Development Agency, constitutes the formal issuing entity.
A map with an agenda
There can be no doubt then that this map presents itself as an official depiction of documentable reality. Yet there is more going on here than initially meets the eye. First of all, the map uses a statistical ploy to equate the density of welfare recipients directly with the degree of poverty, simplifying matters significantly. Secondly, while gentrification processes may have changed the composition of certain parts of the city considerably over time, when this map was published the obvious socio-economic eyesores on this map were of course Harlem and the Bronx, both of which were predominantly African-American neighborhoods with low incomes. There is, in other words, a distinct racial undercurrent to this map, although it naturally tries to hide it behind a facade of formal statistics and grid plotting.
This map is a great example of how municipalities and governments strive to simplify complex matters so that a single — often political — message can be extracted. If one were to produce this map today, the distribution pattern would look much different, and an argument might be made that the situation had been improved upon. But the changes incurred would in large part be due to the massive demographic shifts of the last 40 years, as well as to the way in which poverty today is recorded and welfare is issued (Misturelli & Heffernan 2008). The degree to which poverty itself has dropped in New York City over the last forty years, as well as the degree to which the demography of such poverty has changed in that period, is perhaps more questionable.
Ultimately, this city plan was meant to convey a simplistic understanding of a very complex problem, and as such belongs to the category of map scholarship known as ‘Persuasive Cartography.’
No copies of this map are recorded in OCLC.
Folding map. Paper a bit toned, very good.
Misturelli, Federica & Heffernan, Claire (2008). What is poverty? A diachronic exploration of the discourse on poverty from the 1970s to the 2000s. European Journal of Development Research 20: 666-684. DOI: 10.1080/09578810802464888.